The Basque Country: A Cultural History by Paddy Woodworth

Few and far between are the “popular” books on the Basque Country that give an overview of the people, the land, and the culture of Euskal Herria.  The Basque Histroy of the World, by Mark Kurlansky, is probably the most well-known.  Now, Paddy Woodworth, author of Dirty Wars, Clean Hands: ETA, the GAL, and Spanish Democracy (an excellent book, by the way, that I highly recommend), enters into this area with his The Basque Country: A Cultural History.

We read The Basque Country as part of the book club my wife, Lisa, has organized for our Basque club, the New Mexico Euskal Etxea.  It has been a long time since I read Kurlansky’s book, so I may misremember some of the details.

For the most part, I really enjoyed The Basque Country.  I think Woodworth took a fairly balanced view of the Basque Country, looking past the “glossy” surface of things and examining the “nitty-gritty” if you will, the politics that infuse everything that is Basque.  At times, I think he went a bit too far.  Especially in the first half of the book, it felt like he couldn’t say anything positive about the Basques without a corresponding negative spin.  FOr me, this was epitomized by his comments on the company AZTI, which is trying to respond to, for example, declines in fish populations due to overfishing and finding alternatives for the future.  They have developed an unmanned drone to scour the seas and find schools of fish.  Woodworth couldn’t leave it at that, and essentially chastises the company for developing what could become a tool of war.  This seemed too much to me, especially after all the negative spin he had done before.

Woodworth is definitely not a friend of the nationalists.  His most negative comments are often reserved for them and their policies.  He criticizes them for using the traditional symbols of the Basque people — the basseri, the dancing, the music — for political purposes, for not letting the country evolve past those symbols, for keeping the country stuck in the past in some sense.  This is an interesting dichotomy in the Basque Country.  The image of the country is strongly tied to these traditional images, but the Basque Country is nothing if not dynamic, always pushing their resources to be at the leading edge of industry and technology.  In the past, this was exemplified by their mining and steel production, which lead to some of the modern conflict between traditional Basque culture and a more modern, urban populace, as many of the people who worked in the mining industry were immigrants from other parts of Spain.  Today, the Basques are at the forefront of several more modern technologies in the information technology areas.  It will be interesting to see how these efforts further modify the Basque cultural landscape.

Even if Woodworth was negative towards nationalist policies, I still felt he was more balanced than Kurlansky’s effort.  Reality may lie somehwere between the two, and a more balanced perspective might be found by reading both books and “averaging” what the two authors say.  Kurlansky definitely glorifies Basque traditions much more than Woodworth, though Woodworth finds his most exhuberant descriptions of the Basques when he is in the small villages experiencing traditional festivals.

And, Woodworth is not immune to the mystique of the traditional Basque life.  Much of his book is spent wandering the villages of Nafarroa and Iparralde, describing their history and their ancient traditions.  While this gives a nice introduction of some lesser seen parts of Euskal Herria, at the same time I felt that what I might call the “modern” Basque Country, the intersection between the urban and rural, the modern and traditional, was neglected as a result.  The traditional values and practices are certainly an important part of the Basque Country and its identity.  However, in my mind, it will be how those traditions are incorporated into a modern and vibrant country that will determine the future of the country.  If the Basque Country is to become a modern nation where Euskara can thrive in a modern setting, the language and traditions can’t be relegated to the rural, traditional villages.  It has to become part of the urban setting, has to be a language in which science, politics, and technology can be discussed.  In that sense, I would have preferred to see more of that intersection between modern and traditional.  That is, in my opinion, where the real struggle for the future of the language and the cultural will occur.

I am definitely interested in what you thought about the book.  Did you feel differently?  Did you love or hate the book?  Please share your thoughts with the rest of us.

5 thoughts on “The Basque Country: A Cultural History by Paddy Woodworth”

  1. I haven’t read this book — disclaimer — and after your review, I don’t think I will. I do feel that it is wrong of the nationalist government to prey upon people’s sentiments about their heritage to promote their agendas. My good friend who works in the public sector and is very knowledgable about the situation tells me that even on Basque TV, the politics even infiltrate the children’s programs so that they are indoctrinated in a subtle way.

    However, recently, a socialist president was elected to be leader of the EH (euskal herria, for all y’all who don’t know) and many Basques who are forced to be quiet about their desire to *not* separate from Spain will hopefully be able to say what they feel without fear of reprisal from anyone. It’s not ethical to be blacklisted or worse just because you have equal pride in being a Basque and a Spaniard… anywhere.

    Non-separatists have a right to feel what they wish just as much as the nationalist separatist groups, and it doesn’t make them any less Basque. Most people in the world, regardless of where they are from have one goal: peace and the pursuit of happiness.

    It’s sad that the political state in the EH has marred the landscape (in several senses of the word) of such a lovely little region of the world, with an amazing ancient history. The thing I think it’s important for outsiders who weren’t born in the EH to remember is for us to try to separate the political sentiment from the culture that existed long before there was a modern government.

    That is the true spirit of the Basque country, and the people themselves, not any political ideology. An ancient people who are moving in modern times, just like the rest of the world, and statistically speaking, one of the most affluent and productive regions in Spain and in Europe.

    On another note: how can a person just spend time in Nafarroa and Iparralde and say that’s representative of the entire EH? Gipuzkoa and Bizkaia are far larger with more Basque speakers, and he didn’t spend any time there? That’s the second reason I won’t read it… a true history of the Basque country really should include travels in those regions as well.

  2. I may have mislead re your last comment. He does discuss the other regions (though not so much about Araba). I just felt the weight given to those other reasons was a little disproportionate compared to their role in forging a modern Basque society. He discusses a lot, actually, about the history of Bilbao and of course there is discussion of Gernika. He skips much about Donostia, rightly saying much has already been written about that city. So, sorry to mislead.

    I guess overall I felt this book was more balanced than Kurlansky’s, gave a more complete picture of the Euskal Herria I am personally familiar with, but experiences will differ.

    Thanks for your comments!

  3. Woodworth is an expert tour guide, having spent time in Euskadi over the past 30 years covering it for the Irish Times. And having written one of the best books in English about the state-sponsored terror campaign waged there in the 1970s and 80s (Dirty War, Clean Hands).

    The Basque Country, as Woodworth recognizes, is a complex place. Not everyone can even agree where it is. He sticks with the standard definition, that it includes Navarra, a piece of Southwestern France, as well as the present-day Basque Autnomous Community.

    This book is a detaield guide: part travel book, part commentary and interpretation. The model is Mark Kurlansky’s Basque History of the World, which Woodworth calls ‘beautifully written but unreliable’. Both books purport to give a panoramic vision of that country, its history, its culture, its politics.

    This book let me down a bit at first. Some of the writer’s passion (as showed in his book Dirty War) seemed to be drained out of him. Evidently, he is not crazy about the Basque government and its ruling party, the Basque Nationalists (PNV). His discussion of the Gernika and Urdaibai region is ruined by his constant complaints about the PNV’s policies, its iconography, its treatment of the artist Agustin Ibarrola – a former nationalist, and its perceived lack of a pluralistic vision of the Basque Country.

    Speaking of unreliable, this book also contains a few mistakes of its own, mostly small. The Zuloaga museum is in Zumaia, not Orio. Itziar is in Gipuzkoa, not Bizkaia. More importantly, his assertion that the term “Euskal Herria” (Basque Country) is associated with violent political groups, that’s just not the case, you can find it on any number of innocuous tourist items.

    His choppy beginning is redeemed in many fine chapters, rewarding a persistent reader, including the one on Basque writer Bernardo Atxaga, a very sensitive and balanced view. Likewise, his chapter on writer Pio Baroja and his environment is full of good information.

    Useful bits also include a near-perfect tour of Bilbao and the Nervion Valley, stopping by the haunts of La Pasionaria (Dolores Ibarruri) in the iron ore towns of the hills above Trapagaran on the left bank. I did not realize, for instance, that La Pasionaria had been a waitress in La Arboleda, one of the cradles of Basque socialism. His picture is for the most accurate, and he hits most of the chief sites of interest.

    Conversely, Woodworth devotes only five pages to Basque music, which is lots if you are not musical, but insufficient for a decent understanding or flavour of an essential element of Basque culture. In fact, a couple of omissions and commissions in this short piece stopped me cold.

    Earlier, in the Baroja chapter, he wrote negatively about the practice of Basques taking personal names and Basque-izing them (replacing K for C, TX for CH, etc.) So it comes as a shock here when he refers in this chapter to Basque accordionist “Kepa Junquera” – he actually Hispanicizes the name of the well-known musician who goes by ‘Junkera.’ Besides this, to say Junkera is the only contemporary Basque musician to achive an international following, is to ignore the existence of a list which includes: Fermin Muguruza, Berri Txarrak, Ken Zazpi….

    It had never ocurred to me, either, to associate the flute-like txistu with the PNV, or the percussive txalaparta with the nationalist left, as he does in this chapter. And to say, as he does elsewhere in the book, that Bilbao does not have a real tradition in classical music, is to ignore greats such as Arriaga, Guridi, Sorozabal, Isasi and many others.

    Woodworth gives a fascinating account of central and southern Navarra, with its deserts, hermitages, and small, inaccessible villages. He provides fascinating descriptions of fiestas in places like Laguardia (Biasteri) and a (dead) goose-beheading in Lekeitio. He deals with the superb Basque gastronomy, and of course the famous sport jai alai – or pelota. There’s a good chapter on the French Basque Country (Iparralde) that reflects his research for his earlier book and a couple of days travel.

    His main chapter (“Don’t Mention the War”) on politics, a difficult and fraught topic, is a fair, balanced one. He well understands the many strands of nationalism, both Spanish and Basque (plus, in the North, French) and how these play and balance against each other. This chapter is clearly focused and well-explained.

    Yet this chapter also has a very important omission. Five years ago, (2003) the Spanish government closed down the only Basque daily newspaper, Egunkaria. It is a difficult subject, but one which, as a reporter himself, this writer should not ignore.

    Generally though, this is a well-balanced, informative book. Best of all, it shows that there is much, much more to the Basques than political violence, the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum, and jai alai.

  4. I Have not yet read this book. I am, however, reading “Ghosts of Spain” by Giles Tremblett and he references “Dirty Wars, Clean Hands: ETA, the GAL, and Spanish Democracy “. He, too, is nofriend of the nationalists but on balance I thought he did a very good job in describing Euzkadi within the lar4ger context of modern Spain. I would be curious to hear what other readers think about “Ghosts of Spain”.

  5. Re: Ghosts of Spain,
    Tremlett, the author, has no time for nationalism, unless it is big-nation nationalism. So, that,s a double standard, in my view.

    Tremlett, like Woodsworth, goes out of his way to discredit Basque nationalists. he talks about Sabino Arana and all his views, while not mentioning, Jose Antonio Aguirre. He treats the Basque language as small and insignificant. He has a ‘no one speaks it, so why bother’ attitude. To be fair, Galician and Catalan do about the same. He lived once in Barcelona and did not bother learning Catalan. He paints a very negative picture of Basque society and culture. I seem to remember one chapter where he is in Zaldibia and can’t take the txalaparta so he basically gets the heck out as fast as he can. I think he was kind of scared of it.

    I discussed this book with a friend, who is a Bilbaina, and definitely not a Basque nationalist. She said, ‘well how can he write about Basque country when he hasn’t lived there.’

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